State of the Hill: Presidential Power in Turkey

Sunday, April 16, the Turkish people, by a very narrow majority, voted to approve a constitutional referendum that greatly expanded the powers of the Presidency. It was a referendum proposed and spear-headed by the nation’s leading right wing coalition. President Recep Erdoğan will be the immediate beneficiary of the new constitutional provisions, though future presidents will also wield the newly granted powers.

Erdoğan has been under intense scrutiny from world leaders for his highly authoritarian and reactionary response to a failed July 2016 military coup. Erdoğan’s strong-armed measures have resulted in over 130,000 public sector firings and arrests, the imprisonment of the political opposition and the suppression of the press. While voices from around the European Union were calling for careful consideration of what could be the sunset of the Turkish democracy established under Kemal Attaturk nearly 100 years earlier, the Executive branch was on the phone with President Edroğan, congratulating him on his victory.

The referendum is a sweeping restructure of about 20 items in the Turkish constitution. Many of them, upon first reading seem innocuous;

  • Military courts are broadly abolished
  • Military seats on the high court are abolished, leaving the same number of seats appointed by the parliament, while two seats are filled by executive appointment (four fifths of the court still executive appointed)
  • Compulsory military service is abolished
  • Political candidates may now be younger, and
  • The president may now appoint vice presidents

This last item might leave one with questions. Why has the president not had that power in the past? Why does he need it now? Why would one need multiple vice presidents? The answer, in all cases, is rooted in the new, massive consolidation of executive power in the president. For example, further amendments will

  • Terminate the parliamentary system, eliminating the seat of prime minister, moving his function as head of government to the president.
    • Here we should note that as it stood until Sunday, the president was a non-partisan head of state. Party affiliation was not allowed, and the president was effectively, on election, an a-political actor.
  • The president will now retain party affiliation.
  • The president may dissolve the entire parliament on command and call for new elections
  • The president, following special parliamentary procedure, may serve a third term
  • Vetoes by the president, instead of requiring only a simple quorum majority, will require a simple absolute majority
  • The parliament is now restricted to written auditing of ministers and vice presidents, instead of both written and verbal inquiry, and the president may not be questioned by any parliamentary auditors.
  • The president may abolish and establish ministries, and appoint ministers and other senior officials, without review from the judiciary or legislative branches.

Officials in Erdoğan’s government hoped, and indeed expected, to garner at least 60 percent of the vote. Instead, it slipped by at a slim range of 51.3 to 48.7 majority. In addition to a strong public division which has, following this election, been quantified, there have also been serious accusations of various forms of voting manipulation on the part of the sitting government. There have been thousands of reports of fraud to the nation’s election commission, and there are many who argue that the approval of the referendum would not have come had the president not been using his intense authoritarian behavior to influence not only general political dissidents, but voters at large.

It is worth noting that, because of rebel activity in areas of the country populated largely by Kurdish people, large numbers of displaced Kurds, who were broadly expected to vote down the referendum, were unable to vote, because they no longer have official addresses.

This is the victory which our president has lauded. He is, as of yet, the first and only western leader to do so.

In fairness, our nation has legitimate military interest in maintaining Turkey as an ally against ISIS, but we cannot lose sight of the irrationality of fighting repressive regimes in one region by supporting and praising them in another. If the bulk of Western Europe can call a spade a spade, so can the president of the United States. True, many of us would have difficulty fathoming the speech craft necessary to smoothly avoid mentioning this kind of political event when in conversation with its beneficiary. It is, however, commonplace for the common man to be unable to fathom basic capacities which are, nonetheless, absolutely crucial to being the most powerful human on the planet.

We may be wont to overzealously decry the imminence of the next western dictatorships in Germany, France or the US – the United States are in a difficult pass, but this is not pre-war Europe.  And yet, it is still vital that we as citizens – as democrats in the ancient sense – remember that the best place to slit the throat of a democracy is in the ballot booth. And so we are not wrong in questioning why our president is the first leader in the western world to praise this kind of power grab.

We will, for at least the next several years, continue to watch Donald Trump, to scruple and debate, to scrutinize his actions as president. We will continue, then, to hear him insist that his interest is the nation’s interest, the interest of the security and prosperity of the people. Less likely, however, is it that we will hear him ground his actions in the defense of a diverse, just and balanced democracy.

This is a time to be on edge. This is a time to keep eyes open. This is a time to steel oneself, and not allow one’s leaders to charm with their speech, the way they are all too willing to charm the likes of Recep Tyyip Erdoğan.

The name of the game is vigilance.

Photo courtesy of CNN.

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